The Paranoid Strain in American Politics
A star is born in the Grand Obstructionist Party! This seems the obvious conclusion based upon the response to Senator Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, who conducted an old style filibuster by speaking for twelve hours on the Senate floor last week during the confirmation hearings for John O. Brennan, the President’s choice to head the powerful Central Intelligence agency.
The verbose Senator was roundly applauded by a mixed bag of paranoids and ideologues across party lines, as he railed on ad nauseum about the dangers of drone warfare, boldly demanding that the President assure us that no non-combatant American citizen who is sitting and quietly having his coffee will be suddenly attacked by drones on US soil.
It is a fear that struck me as having about the same probability of occurring as an invasion by men from mars. Yet given the wackadoodle nature of politics in the Republican Party these days, plus the widespread ignorance and gullibility of the American public when presented with conspiracy theories about the sinister intentions of their government, the most responsive government to public opinion in the world, many Americans are cheering Rand Paul for what they regard as the heroic stance of this lone Senator against the encroaching tyranny of government.
Even if the Kentucky Senator occasionally gets something right – like his opposition against escalating hostile actions against Iran – we must remember that a broken clock is right twice every day, but you wouldn’t base important appointments on their ability to tell time. And basing your views of how the world works on the blathering of Ron Paul, who reminds me of every pill freak I have ever know – don’t laugh cause this guy is a doctor and could well be self-medicating – is an exercise in folly.
Rand Paul’s views are often mercurial, ill-informed and reflect what the distinguished historian Richard Hofstadter called “The Paranoid Style” in American politics in his 1964 essay published in Harper’s Magazine. Spurred by the reckless and dangerous rhetoric employed by Senator Barry Goldwater, a rightwing Republican from Arizona, in his bid for the US presidency, Professor Hofstadter offered the following observations.
“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wind. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.
In using the expression “paranoid style” I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics., In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds.
It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant. Of course this term is pejorative, and it is meant to be; the paranoid style has a greater affinity for bad causes than good. But nothing really prevents a sound program or demand from being advocated in the paranoid style. Style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than with the truth or falsity of their content. I am interested here in getting at our political psychology through our political rhetoric. The paranoid style is an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent.”
The fact that this description of American politics was written a half century ago, but could have been written about American politics today, supplies compelling evidence that this phenomena is a recurring theme in American political history. Two contemporary examples will suffice: one on the right and one on the left.
The belief by an impassioned minority that the attack on the world trade towers and the Pentagon on 9/11 were carried out by the Bush Administration is a striking example of paranoia on the left. And Rand Paul’s filibuster demanding that the president assure the nation that he would not use drones against non-combatant Americans on US soil is characteristic of the paranoia that fuels the Tea Party movement on the Republican right. Although there are some who support this concern from both extremes of the political continuum – which is the case with Code Pink’s support of Paul’s filibuster – the Kentucky Senator is a right-wing Libertarian.
While some see Paul as checking the power of the President by demanding accountability, I think he was grandstanding for the press in an attempt to raise his national profile. Already he is murmuring about a run for the presidency in 2016, but playing upon the paranoia of fringe elements on the right and left of the American political spectrum does not strike me as a winning formula.
The ideological range of those who have rushed to support Paul’s filibuster is intriguing; it reveals a Sympatico between elements of the right and left that share a paranoia about governmental power, exposing fissures in the ranks of the Democrats and Republicans. On foreign policy matters Republican opinion ranges from neo-con hawks that are ever ready to intervene anywhere in the world with military might in order to enforce American foreign policy goals, such as Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, to Libertarian isolationists like Rand Paul.
The Democrats tend to be less interventionist than the Republicans, but they can be persuaded to deploy military forces on foreign soil if they are convinced that “freedom” is being trampled underfoot by bloodthirsty tyrants, and innocent lives are at stake. It is an expression of what Henry Kissinger calls “the evangelical” character of American foreign policy. While earnestly seeking a peaceful world, President Obama has nevertheless been drawn into the conflict in Libya, and may yet be lured into the Syrian imbroglio – a move that will inspire some resistance among Democrats and Republicans alike.
The question at issue in Senator Paul’s filibuster however is the Presidents employment of drone warfare, and if is constitutional. On this question party lines have become blurred. While anti-war Democrats concerned with guarding the civil liberties of Americans applaud Senator Paul, right wing Republican militarists such as Graham and McCain supports the President’s use of drones, ridicules their Republican colleague’s concerns and dismiss them as the foolishness that they are.
Taking the floor in an uncharacteristic defense of the President Senator McCain – who normally acts like he is still carrying a grudge because he lost his presidential bid against Obama – intoned “We’ve done, I think, to a lot of Americans by making them think that somehow they’re in danger form their government. They’re not. But we are in danger from a dedicated longstanding, easily replaceable leadership enemy that is hell bent on our destruction.”
Senator Lindsay Graham Joined the defense by pointing out that there was a drone program under George Bush, and there was none of the fears and anxieties being whipped up by Rand Paul and his supporters. However Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont – Chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee – voted against the President’s nominee, incensed by the refusal of the President to provide memos detailing their legal arguments in defense of using drones against American citizens anywhere. Thus far the Obama administration has only been willing to provide such memos to the Intelligence Committee.
It seems that Attorney General Eric Holder’s terse letter to Senator Paul, in which he answered the Senator’s questions about whether the President thought he has the right to fire a drone to kill a non-combatant American on American soil with a simple “No,” was enough to assuage the Libertarian Republican’s fears. But the fact that liberal Democratic Senators Lehey of Vermont and Jeff Merkley of Oregon joined far right Republican reactionaries like Tim Cruz of Texas in rejecting the President’s choice to lead the CIA, dramatically illustrates the extent to which the Paranoid strain in American politics infects members of both parties.
A Blathering Clown!
This Doctor’s Prescription Spells Disaster!
That’s how they all ended up supporting the interminable blathering of a Senator who is either a charlatan or a paranoid fool…or a bit of all the above. Alas the paranoid vision of the far right and the real left – the Marxist, not the miscast liberal Democrats – is such that you can barely tell them apart on some critical issues. Their only distinction is that one is coming from the right and the other from the left, and as I have written elsewhere: It is a distinction without a difference!